Who is condemned?
Q: Since the Church teaches that God is a forgiving God, how could He banish a person to Hell? It is very difficult for me to believe that God would make that an eternal habitat for anyone. (Unspecified city, Indiana)
A: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Hell's principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (CCC 1057) So hell isn't so much of a place or "habitat" as it is a state of freely chosen estrangement from God.
As Catholics, we believe that God created us with free will, meaning that we decide for ourselves to love God and seek to follow his commandments; or we can choose to reject or ignore God. If we freely choose to distance ourselves from God through seriously sinful actions and a lack of repentance, God will respect our agency in making this choice and will not override our decision or force himself on us. If a person knowingly and willingly persists in a state of unrepentant grave sin right up until the time of their death, they are essentially sending themselves to hell.
But God does not actively want hell for any of his creatures. As the catechism also tells us: "God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want 'any to perish, but all to come to repentance.'" (CCC 1037)
Q: I know many Christians wear a cross necklace, but why do Catholics wear a crucifix? Displaying Jesus hanging from a cross, as jewelry, seems both cruel and a bit dark, even bizarre. (Brandenburg, Kentucky)
A: My thought is that our Catholic cultural emphasis on crucifixion imagery comes from Catholicism's focus on the saving power of Christ's passion. Catholics are keenly aware that Jesus was not merely a wise moral teacher, he was the lamb of God who offered his life and was slain for the redemption of the world. Crucifixion imagery helps keep this central facet of our faith readily before our eyes.
Crucifixion imagery also reminds that Christ freely took on our human nature and had a human body that was subject to suffering and death, just as we are. When we are in pain, a crucifix can help us remember that God himself knows and understands what we are going through. It can also remind us of the possibility of uniting our sufferings to Christ's, filling us with the hope that our suffering in this life might also bear fruit for the salvation of souls.
Yes, a crucifix can be a jarring image. If you look at the history of Christian art, it seems to have been a bit "too much" for the early Christians, which is why other kinds of imagery -- such as Christ the Good Shepherd -- were much more common in the Church's first few centuries. Even in the early Middle Ages, when crucifixes were more widely used, the crucified Christ was most often portrayed as a serene and victorious king rather than as a frankly suffering victim.
More "graphic" crucifixes, where the intention of the artist is to show Jesus in agony, didn't become typical until the Counter Reformation era in the 16th century. This period of the church's history was focused on correcting abuses and other forms of corruption within the church, in addition to deepening the personal spirituality of the faithful. So perhaps during this era the more intense crucifixion imagery was intended to serve as a kind of spiritual "wake up call" to a church needing to rediscover its centuries-old foundation.
- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.